Sunday, October 19, 2014

Our Epic Zion Adventure--Birch Hollow Canyon

 My brother Ed called me up one Tuesday and told me that he and his girlfriend Christina were flying into Las Vegas on Saturday. Did we want to meet in Death Valley or Zion? I told him Zion would be great, we love going there and we could go canyoneering. He agreed, and then it was time to decide where we could go canyoneering. I decided Birch Hollow Canyon would be a good spot. Just outside the park, it didn't require a permit, was 4-6 hours long according to the beta, had a number of fun rappels, but none too long, and it was dry. That was good considering it was mid-October and chilly. On Thursday I heard from a caving friend, Rodney, that he would be down there with his girlfriend. I welcomed the extra rope expertise. So on Sunday morning we met up at the side of the road to begin our journey.

 I knew that this was a popular canyon and expected to see quite a few people. We saw a guide group start ahead of us with some clients. After we had all our gear ready, we started out about 10 am from the trailhead, having fun skirting the obstacles.

An old ATV ramp was one of the memorable parts of the approach.

We even found a couple caves on the way, and Desert Boy checked one out. He reported back that it had a lot of mud and flies.
Photo courtesy of Ed
After about an hour of hiking, we reached the first rappel, the longest, at about 120 ft. I had bought a new 200 ft canyoneering rope the day before and we also had 100 ft of caving rope. I tied the ropes together, and secured the canyoneering rope with a releasable anchor as only two of our group were comfortable with rappelling. I had my caving friend Rodney go down first, as he has tons of rappelling experience. From the bottom he could bottom belay everyone and make sure they got down safely. I lowered Desert Boy from the top. We decided Desert Girl should go down double with her uncle.

Photo courtesy of Christina

I was a little nervous about getting the anchor right for pulling. I'm used to cave anchoring, where we go down and then back up the same rope. For canyoneering, you rig so that you go down the rope, then pull the rope, and then continue down the canyon. Since this rappel was longer than just one rope, I had to rig it so we could pull the knotted side after I had rappelled down the unknotted side. It all worked out fine.

Then we had a little hike and got to our next rappel. Another group was there, having approached from another route. We ate some lunch while they put their dog into a rope bag for the rappel. Then it was our turn. This rappel was about 80 feet.

Then we had some fun in the canyon, as the walls narrowed and we had to scramble down obstacles.

Photo courtesy of Ed 

It wasn't too long until we got to our next rappel, about 20 feet. It was time for Desert Boy to learn how to rappel. He was very excited. We explained how to rappel and that if he had any trouble he just needed to call out and his bottom belay would stop him. We all got down relatively quickly and were feeling comfortable with rappelling.

Desert Boy found a scorpion at the bottom of the drop.
Photo courtesy of Ed
Desert Girl had a blast chilling between rappels.
Photo courtesy of Ed
The canyon opened up a bit and we enjoyed some fall colors.
Photo courtesy of Ed
A little bit farther was the rappel I remembered most: an 80-foot drop into a fluted canyon. Rodney led the way.
Photo courtesy of Ed
I lowered both kids down this beautiful drop. Desert Boy was pretty sure he could rappel it, and now I am sure he could. But better safe than sorry!
Photo courtesy of Ed
 After I came down, the kids helped Uncle Ed pull the rope.

Another drop waited just around the corner. And then another. And another. Even though I had been to this canyon in 2008, I had forgotten there were so many rappels!

Photo courtesy of Ed
Photo courtesy of Ed

Photo courtesy of Ed
It was clear we wouldn't be back to the second vehicle by 4 pm (a six-hour trip), as it was already past that time and we were still in the rappelling part of the canyon and had a two-hour hike back once we finished. We ate more snacks to keep our energy levels up.

Then we reached the last two rappels, with a view of a chockstone wedged into the canyon above us. It was spectacular. And a place you really wouldn't want to be in a flash flood.

After the last rappel (we had lost count, but there were probably 10-11 total), we had a very short walk out to Orderville Canyon. The last time I did this canyon we exited down canyon and into the Narrows, but we wanted the short version this time, so we headed up canyon. The short version was still long, and we ended up walking out with our headlamps on.
Photo courtesy of Ed
It was certainly an epic adventure. The kids fell asleep on the short ride back to camp, but then woke up and ate heartily. They were great troopers, taking the new experience in stride. We hiked close to 6 miles with at least a 1,000 ft elevation change, and they both did fine.

My tips for a successful canyoneering trip:
1. Watch the weather--it's not worth it to get trapped in a flash flood, too many people have died that way
2. Go with someone who knows how to canyoneer. It's better if you have a couple experienced people in the group. Canyoneering takes specialized techniques, and once you pull your first rope, you are committed. Guiding services are available if you're new to the sport. Here's an article about going with Zion Adventure Company in this same canyon (and they also took longer than 4-6 hours, so that made me feel better!)
3. Have lots of snacks (especially if you have kids with you)
4. Have a surface contact--Rodney's girlfriend knew where we were and would contact authorities if we weren't back by a certain time; we had absolutely no cell service, so don't rely on that
5. Wear appropriate clothing for the canyon--some are very, very wet and cold, easy to get hypothermia
6. Have fun! Even though it took us longer than we anticipated, we still had a super time, and as we progressed down the canyon, we became a stronger team.

I've already been checking out other possible canyons, although I think the next one with the kids will be a shorter one.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Small Party Cave Rescue Class 2014

As a precursor to the upcoming epic Zion adventure post, I thought I better do this post.
 At the end of September I spent a long weekend in Garden City, Utah to help teach a Small Party Assisted Rescue (SPAR) class, sponsored by the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC). My friend Andy had asked if I would be a part of it, and since I enjoyed the previous one we had taught together so much, I said yes. Andy had found a huge vacation cabin that slept 26, so we had 20 students, 5 instructors, and 1 very awesome Bonny who did everything under the sun (or clouds) to keep us going.

It turned out the cabin had some great rigging opportunities, which we took advantage of for the Thursday night check-ins and Friday exercises.

Friday we also had a half-day of classroom activities, including learning about pre-planning, what to take in your cave pack, using your vehicle as your mini rescue cache (even if it's a horizontal cave, you can keep some vertical gear in your car just in case), hypothermia, improvised splinting (see below), suspension trauma, and a review of haul systems.

Then the afternoon was time to get on rope. The students rotated through different stations, such as the diminishing loop counterbalance (a super small party rescue technique).

 We also taught how to get a person stuck on rope down to the ground quickly by converting to a lower. Of course, the best way to make this quick is to rig a contingency anchor (for example a munter tied off), so if someone gets stuck, it takes about five seconds to start lowering them.

Students (and instructors) loved doing the rebelay course, a rope course that included switching to different ropes, a deviation, and a J-hang. You really learn to tune your system so you don't expend too much energy.

In the evening we enjoyed a good rigging/bad rigging lecture. You need to know your gear. And test your anchors. Every time.

The next day we headed to a nearby cave under the threat of massive rains. The rains did come, but we went anyway. It's not always good weather for rescues, after all. The cave was ten minutes away by car and then a ten minute hike. The 30-foot pit provided us a variety of scenarios, expanding on what we had taught the day before, like how to use a diminishing loop counterbalance when you have to dangle it over the edge. We also did some in-cave movement and traveling hauls, where the haul system moves up the rope with the patient instead of being at the top (or bottom).

Here's the rigging for a contingency anchor, along with a canyoneer rappelling down on his piranha. We had a bunch of canyoneers in the class, and it was fun trading techniques.

By lunchtime everyone was soaked, so we headed back to the cabin to practice some other techniques, like how to get a patient through a rebelay (below).
 That evening we had a presentation from a local caver who had shattered his scapula (shoulder blade) in a caving accident this past summer and how he had self-rescued out of the cave. It was a great story and a good lesson for us all.

Then on Sunday it was time for the mock scenarios. We drove in the rain up to Paris Ice Cave, a place we had visited previously. This time I saw it with very different eyes as we set up three scenarios for the students. They did great.

It was a super weekend despite the unfavorable weather, and I had a super time. I learned a few new things, which I greatly value, and met and got to know some folks a lot better. In fact, I met up with one of the students a couple weeks later for our epic Zion adventure. 

If you go caving and have a chance to take a cave rescue class, by all means take it! I have become a much safer caver knowing what would happen if I get hurt deep in a cave--or even not so far into a cave. You can find a list of upcoming classes on the NCRC website.

Cave safely and softly!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Our Little Zion Adventure--Sand Digging Canyon

 Over the weekend we went to Zion National Park to meet one of my brothers and his girlfriend. The park was packed! I couldn't believe how many people were there. In fact, the park is on track to have more than 3 million visitors this year. That's a lot of people for a park that has few roads through its 232 square miles. All the parking lots were full and the highway through the park was very busy. 

Nevertheless, it is possible to find a little quiet. We lucked out into one spot. We parked right before the second, smaller tunnel. A social trail led down to Clear Creek, the canyon that the road parallels for a long section. I figured we would hike in it. But then Desert Boy noticed a side canyon. In particular, he noticed a long tunnel. It was a tunnel that had been carved through the sandstone to allow the canyon to drain. He asked if we could go in.

You already know what I said!

The tunnel was nice and cool and easily walkable. On the other side we popped out to some pools.

I admired some of the fall colors. The maples had a few red leaves.

We spotted a lizard.

We continued hiking in some very nice terrain, the kids leading the way. They were so happy to be exploring. I was so happy to have a little piece of the park to ourselves. They kept telling me I needed to touch the sand because it felt so great. When they found some wet sand, they said it was perfect sand-castle making sand. I could tell they wanted to stop, but I told them we were going to keep hiking.

Then we rounded a corner and found this sweet spot, and I knew we had found our little mecca.
 Not only did we have wet sand, we also had water, colorful rocks, and a little bit of shade. I quickly claimed the shade and laid down on the nice sand and took a little snooze.

 The kids quickly started digging and constructing their sand castles. Everyone was happy!

When I felt refreshed, I wandered up canyon a little.

I found more pools with some stained water in them. The canyon opened up a bit.

I didn't go far, and found the view coming back down was great.

I even found some flowers in bloom.

Desert Girl was happily throwing sand into the puddle. The beauty of desert canyons is that rearranging the sand causes no harm--floods will rearrange the sand much more than two little kids could do in an hour.

Because they're kids, they couldn't resist the water. They asked if they could go for a swim. I said sure, as long as they took all their clothes off. And so they did, quickly discovering that the water was rather cool. 

No one came the whole time we were there. 

 When we scrambled back up to the road, we were back to the highway, with one car after another.
I suspect that there are a lot of sweet spots in Zion, just off the highway. So if you're there, take a chance and see what you can find. We couldn't have been more than a quarter-mile off the highway, but we had it all to ourselves. Even better, the kids keep asking when they can go back. Since they led the trip, they feel ownership in the hike. (See this post for tips for visiting Zion with kids.)

That was our little Zion adventure. Coming soon: our epic Zion adventure.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mountain Biking at Sacramento Pass Recreation Area, Nevada

 When I was reading my friend Jenny's blog about their trip to the recently-opened Sacramento Pass Recreation Area, I was inspired to go for a visit.

They have a really nice sign with lots of information.

While my husband and Desert Girl tried their luck at fishing, Desert Boy and I decided to try one of the hiking/mountain biking/equestrian trails. To make it a little easier, we biked up the road to the equestrian trailhead, which also has three very nice campsites. Then we started down the trail.

It was fun mountain biking!

We reached some obstacles where we had to walk the bikes.

The trail was well marked in some places and in others we had to do a little searching. We rebuilt a couple rock cairns that had fallen over.

A little bit of the trail was flat and smooth.

A lot of the trail had rock obstacles.

I was quite impressed with how Desert Boy handled his bike.

Here's a video that shows Desert Boy going over a particularly rocky section.

We were getting a little tired after mile two, and the aspens sort of took over the trail. Nevertheless, we persevered, as we knew we were close.
It turned out to be a great ride, and we look forward to going back and trying out some of the longer trails.

Meanwhile, Desert Girl had learned to cast well.

We had forgotten the worms, so we only got two trout in about 2.5 hours, so we'll have to go back and work on that too!
Sac Pass is definitely on our list for camping next year. The BLM did a really nice job renovating this area, and we'll be back!
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